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SBE goes for local candidates

The State Board of Education has tapped two familiar names as finalists for Colorado commissioner of education.

John Barry, Aurora schools superintendent, and Robert Hammond, currently serving as commissioner, were named as finalists on a 7-0 board vote late Thursday afternoon.

Robert Hammond and John Barry
Robert Hammond and John Barry

“Colorado is fortunate to have finalists whose management expertise and dedication to education reform is well-known,” board Chair Bob Schaffer, R-4th District, said in a prepared statement. (The board’s brief meeting was conducted by conference call, which was broadcast in the boardroom at the Department of Education.)

The board will conduct an additional interview with each candidate and expects to make a decision in May. State law requires finalists’ names be made public at least 14 days before a selection is made. The new commissioner will start work July 1.

Barry is a retired Air Force major general who became Aurora superintendent in June 2006.

Hammond was appointed commissioner last December after Dwight Jones left the job to become superintendent in Las Vegas, Nev. Prior to joining the department in 2008 as deputy superintendent, Hammond was a senior administrator with the Boulder Valley schools and in the Wichita, Kan., schools.

While the board didn’t use the title “interim” for Hammond, it was understood when he took the job that the board was conducting a national search.

What’s ahead for the new commissioner

The new commissioner faces a long list of recent education legislation to implement, including the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids and the 2010 educator effectiveness law.

He also faces a very different atmosphere than did Jones when he took office in 2007. The state’s financial picture was significantly brighter then, and Jones was in place to participate in the debates over important reform legislation and to partner with Gov. Bill Ritter and Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien in their education initiatives, including the unsuccessful bids for federal Race to the Top funds.

Now, school districts are struggling with budget cuts, and the new Hickenlooper administration has an education-savvy team but hasn’t yet proposed significant education initiatives beyond implementation of the program that’s already in place.

What they’re saying

Reaction to the announcement was complimentary and predictable, given that people in the education community will have to work with whichever man is chosen. Here’s a sampling:

  • “I think they’re both very strong candidates.” – Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins and chair of the Senate Education Committee
  • “We have tremendous respect for both John and Robert, and Colorado is extraordinarily lucky to have the choice between two such exceptional leaders.” – DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg
  • “We are pleased the State Board has announced two outstanding and experienced Colorado educators as finalists for commissioner.” – Bruce Caughey, executive director Colorado Association of School Executives
  • “Both finalists are quality individuals with impressive credentials capable of leading education reform in this state. However, Robert Hammond has a proven track record of listening to, and acting upon rural concerns, and he gets the nod because of that.” – Kit Carson Superintendent Gerald Keefe
  • “I think that regardless of who the State Board chooses to fill the commissioner role, what we need in the next commissioner is someone who’s willing to come in and execute the vision laid out under Dwight Jones and who has the capacity to manage a team well and execute all the respective pieces of state law on the books.” – Lindsay Neil, executive director of Colorado Stand for Children
  • “I think John Barry would be a fabulous leader, and Robert Hammond has done a very good job as an interim.” – Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial and ranking minority member of Senate Education
  • “I think that both of them are people that school districts are probably psyched about. I’m sure districts were petrified by the thought of having a radical reformer. Dwight was about as far as they could handle.” – Van Schoales, executive director of Education Reform Now
  • “The next CDE commissioner needs the ability to thoroughly implement educational standards, assessments and evaluation systems across the state; understand and manage complex systems; have exceptional personal skills to collaborate with many sides and bring people together on contentious issues; and partner with educators across the state on the issues that impact student learning in rural districts.” – Mike Wetzel, spokesman for the Colorado Education Association

Candidate backgrounds

Barry has been an activist superintendent in Aurora and presided over the development of two strategic plans, VISTA 2010 and the new VISTA 2015.

In the spring of 2006, 45 percent of Aurora students in grades 3 through 10 were proficient or advanced in reading, 32 percent were proficient or advanced in math and 28 percent were proficient or advanced in writing.

In the spring of 2010, 47 percent were proficient or advanced in reading, 39 percent were proficient or advanced in math and 32 percent were proficient or advanced in writing.

The district’s median growth percentile lagged the state in reading, math and writing in spring 2006 but outpaced the state in spring 2010.

Last fall, Barry said he wouldn’t be a candidate for commissioner. In an email to Aurora district staff on Thursday, he said he was urged to seek the job and changed his mind. “If key leaders in this state thought that I could help serve students at the state level, then I concluded I would honor their support and apply for the position. … If not selected, I will fully support whomever the State Board of Education chooses and continue as Superintendent of APS for as long as our community will allow.”

Hammond was the chief operations officer for Boulder Valley, one of the state’s 10 largest districts. As deputy commissioner, he oversaw a significant cleanup of CDE’s compliance with federal financial rules and supervised improvements in department data systems, including the Colorado Growth Model.

Since being named to fill Jones’ job, Hammond has launched a reorganization to focus the department on educator effectiveness initiatives and also devoted some attention to the rising challenges facing the state’s rural districts.

The search

The board hired the search firm of Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates last December to conduct gather opinions about the characteristics of a new commissioner and conduct a national search. (See this EdNews story about board discussions on the search.)

The board interviewed candidates last week before narrowing its choices. The additional closed interviews with the two finalists start at 3 p.m. next Wednesday. No public comment hearing is scheduled, but Schaffer said Thursday that the board welcomes written comments. You can bet board members also will be getting plenty of phone calls.

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